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And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre  one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious – is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult readers only as “guilty pleasure” (a phrase I loathe).

My mother-in-law and Michael Chabon have something in common. They both dislike the word genre. It has become an arbiter of taste – genre-fiction obviously is of less value than ‘literature’, or serious writing. Not only that, but a book written according to the rules and precepts of a specific genre is somehow less meaningful than a tale about individuals struggling with day-to-day problems and perhaps if the reader is lucky, arriving at an epiphany before the plot runs out.

Chabon here defends the stalwarts of genre fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle to M.R. James; from ghost stories to comic books, Will Eisner‘s The Spirit to Howard Chaykin‘s American Flagg; running the gamut between Philip Pullman‘s Miltonian Young Adult fiction, to literary darling Cormac McCarthy’s sf-not-by-name The Road. This is also, as the book’s subtitle states ‘Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands’ a collection of essays about writing, as much as it is about reading. The first half of the book is concerned with writers who represent the influences Chabon wishes to credit for his own development as a writer. The second half describes his beginnings as a novelist, as well as the aspects of his own life that inspired his fiction.

The central theme can be reduced to the power of lies to tell the truth. Chabon’s love of Loki found expression in his own children’s novel Summerland, where the villain was identified as the archetypal Trickster. He credits Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World for identifying the role played Loki/Satan/Coyote/Prometheus in symbolising that freewheeling creative spirit of the imagination. The conflict between genre fiction, wild and magical, dark and mysterious, and literature, enshrined (perhaps entombed) by consensus as ‘valuable’, in a coldly calculated manner, that lies at the heart of this collection.

When we read about our favourite writers, the temptation is there to find some aspect of their true selves in their fiction. Chabon describes how he himself felt terrified the first time he submitted material that featured a gay love scene. Similarly Wonder Boys convinced certain readers that Chabon himself was a pot-smoking ladies’ man. It is with these caveats that he sets about describing the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, presenting what he has learned (I loved  that The Sign of Four and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray were commissioned at the same time over lunch by magazine editor J.M. Stoddart), while also making tentative guesses at some insight into the author’s life. M.R. James’ ghost stories possess none of the overt Freudian undertones of modern horror writers, but beneath the precise phrases and clipped prose, Chabon detects an unconscious sexual undercurrent to the paranormal horrors the writer visited upon his protagonists.

He criticises Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for losing sight of the first book’s sense of wonder, as well as its heroine Lyra’s whimsical character. However, he also lauds the series for not condescending to its readership, reinvigorating the tropes of the adventure serial and seriously exploring its allusive relationship to Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series, in Chabon’s view, acts as a celebration of the adventure that can be found in childhood, one that is slowly being extinguished in mainstream culture, even in comic books! In a general essay about the medium, he notes that few comics today actually feature child protagonists. Compare that to the blockbuster Harry Potter series, or Lyra and Will leaping across dimensions in Pullman’s books.

This being Chabon of course, the auto-biographical segments of this collection need to be taken with a grain of salt. From his remove as a forty-something author his childhood becomes a tableau of unguessed at future potential; his first novel credited to the efforts of Fitzgerald and Roth. He discusses his life as an American Jew, the break-up of his first marriage, the ‘exile’ of an author and how it relates to his culture. How a conflict on a Yiddish message board led to The Yiddish Policemen’s Ball!

Inspiring, truthful and humorous.

Arthur was also counting on the promised intervention by ‘Will’, who he supposed was the same person or entity as ‘The Will’, that Mister Monday and Sneezer had talked about, who he presumed was also the giver of the Atlas. He figured that if he could get close to the House, it would do something to help him get inside.

So I see from this book’s Author’s Note, that Garth Nix was born in Melbourne. I am of the opinion that many fine things can be found there and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. The first in a series of novels called The Keys to the Kingdom, this is the second fantasy franchise by the gifted Nix. A few years ago I began to see copies of his Old Kingdom trilogy – Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen – everywhere in bookstores. Sadly I never tried them out (I was wary due to a glut of Harry Potter imitations at the time), but after I have finished this run, I reckon Mr Nix is going to become a fixture of my bookshelf.

The book opens with an Inspector going about his duties inspecting the security of a very special item. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the item in question is a paragraph from a very special Will. It is secured locked inside a crystal cage. Surrounded by a number of metal sentinels. On a dead star. The Inspector himself, is no ordinary bureaucrat, but a winged servant of a higher power who is partial to snuff. Shortly after his arrival the living aspect of the Will of creation manages to effect a jailbreak and escape to Earth, with Mister Monday’s determined lieutenants Dawn, Noon and Dusk hot on its trail.

Meanwhile during Arthur Penhaligon’s first day at a new school, he collapses due to an asthma attack. After he is revived by a girl named Leaf, he witnesses the arrival of the strange Mister Monday, who is tricked by the Will into giving the boy a mystical minute hand and a mysterious atlas. Arthur is expected to die soon, so it is hoped that his frail condition will allow the artifacts to revert back to Mister Monday shortly thereafter, neatly allowing the trustee of these objects to avoid any punishment for allowing the Will to escape. The minute hand is in fact a magic key that can effect the will of its user. The atlas can only be read by a bearer of the key and explains the nature of the House, a structure that represents each level of reality. The world Arthur knows is only the second plane of this structure, there are many others above and below, sitting atop the vast chthonic Nothing that spawns the mysterious creatures Mister Monday uses to control his realm.

Arthur is surprised to find his asthmatic condition is relieved whenever he holds the key in his hand. Unfortunately Leaf’s family and a number of other children at school fall victim to a mysterious plague. Learning that the disease is being spread by agents of Mister Monday as they hunt for him, Arthur travels to the weird House that has appeared in his neighbourhood that only he can see. Inside he discovers a world of magic far bigger than the walls that contain it, filled with fallen angels, a talking frog, dog-faced men, dinosaurs and deadly Bibliophages. A world where words have power and little children enslaved by the legendary Piper have toiled for thousands of years. Determined to save the lives of his friends and defeat the corrupt Mister Monday, Arthur strives to find the secret of the Will.

This is an entertaining first chapter in a series of novels for children. Nix drops references to ancient myths, religion and modern day paranoia about disease in order to give shape to his world. Arthur Penhaligon is an orphan whose biological parents died in a flu epidemic. At one point he travels in time to the period of the Bubonic plague. Death is a constant in his life and is used within the book to fuel the mythic fantasy Nix has constructed.

While a Christian God is never explicitly named, the hierarchies of angels, from Seraphim down to Cherubs, resemble the mysterious figures Arthur meets. Nix also draws on Roman myth, as Monday and his servants resemble the quotidian minor gods of days and hours.

I cannot wait to read Grim Tuesday.

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